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They came for a pelt and left with a Quatchi Add to ...

This was never an especially successful retail outlet for the Hudson's Bay Company.

Sure, it posted some good quarterly earnings throughout the seven decades its doors were open. The location was excellent - steamers could make it this far up the Fraser River without much incident. But fire, floods and debt-ridden customers forced the trading company to give up on Fort Langley 124 years ago.

Until yesterday.

The miners' tools and trail provisions were long gone. Instead, red mitts, floppy-eared hats and Olympic mascot stuffed toys were piled high on barrels and other makeshift shelves. There were blankets, of course, but these ones were made of fleece. The HBC was back in business - just for the day - as a crowd of about 4,000 people gathered for the torch relay.

The 70-year-old building where yesterday's temporary HBC post was set up (the original post was accidentally torched by a blacksmith) still has pelts of fox and raccoon on display, but young customers were more interested in the small Quatchi-on-a-keychain.

In the stockade, visitors slogged across the muddy grounds to see the torch, many of them warmed with the popular red Olympic mitts. Above them, the bastion was reserved for a half dozen history buffs in period costume, armed with restored muskets, ready to signal the arrival of the torch with a barrage of fire.

"The mitts, Quatchi, and hats," said HBC sales agent Laura Sampson, listing off the most popular items. "Anything with red on it."

The first HBC traders adapted to the local market by offering European goods in exchange for B.C. exports of animal pelts, salmon and cranberry crops.

But Ms. Sampson wasn't having any of it yesterday. "Cash or Visa," she said firmly.

Trade was brisk in the shop and perhaps rivalled a good day in the wildly busy year of 1858, when the gold rush sent 33,000 miners up the Fraser River. Fort Langley was the staging ground where they loaded up with supplies before heading up the Cariboo trail.

It was that stampede of gold-seekers that gave rise to the colony of British Columbia - and eventually allowed Canada to stretch from sea to shining sea. Alarmed by the prospect of the mainland being claimed by the Americans to the south, the governor of Vancouver Island came to Fort Langley in November, 1858, to proclaim the land west of the Rockies as a British colony.

That makes Fort Langley the birthplace of British Columbia, and site manager John Aldag was on hand to greet visitors dressed in his best Sir James Douglas attire, with a black top hat, cane and burgundy cravat.

"It wasn't the most successful trading post, but they had some very innovative managers," he explained. In its day, Fort Langley's traders sent butter to Russian trading posts and salted salmon to Hawaii, where the red-fleshed fish was believed to have mystical powers.

One of those innovators was the post's third chief factor, James Yale. Yesterday, the character of Mr. Yale was played by Stewart Goodin, who has been volunteering at the Fort for 30 years. He now routinely sees the kids he once schooled in B.C. history return with their own children in tow.

"What's really neat is that B.C. was here before Canada existed, and Canada wouldn't exist without B.C.," he said, his well-worn lines still filled with enthusiasm. "British Columbia was born on this spot."

Mr. Yale and Governor Douglas were both on centre stage as the torch made its way within the Fort's walls, beaming at the opportunity to impart a little history to this flag-waving crowd.

That history came full circle with the last-minute choice of Bruce Mavis to bear the torch on its way out of the Fort.

His great-grandfather, Alexander Mavis, was one of the prospectors who came through here in 1858 on his journey from northern England to Barkerville. There, unlike most, he struck it rich. He went home, married, and was drawn back here to the Fraser Valley at just the right time - the HBC was putting its operation up for sale.

He purchased the Fort for less than $6,000. With it came 64 hectares of farmland, which he populated with sheep. The old trading post with its solid post-on-sill construction became a barn.

"It's fabulous," said Bruce Mavis as he prepared to carry his torch before the cheering crowd. "There's a lot of emotion."

***

LIGHT BRIGADE

DAYS 102, 103 & 104

Abbotsford

Langley (Township)

Surrey

New Westminster

Richmond

North Vancouver (District)

West Vancouver

Globe and Mail journalists will follow the Olympic Torch Relay every step of the way, painting a compelling portrait of Canada as they go.

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

 

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